If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Schad, Self-Portrait

Christian Schad, Self-Portrait, 1927, oil on wood, 29 x 24-3/8 inches, 76 x 62 cm (Tate Modern, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(lively piano music) Voiceover: We're in the Tate Modern, and we're looking at Christian Schad's "Self-Portrait." It's a painting from 1927. It's a tough painting. Voiceover: It is. It shows two figures who really take up the entire space of the canvas, with the male figure in front looking very menacing, and a passive, very sexual, female nude behind him. Voiceover: He's the artist, looking almost directly at us. There is a very hard edge. The figures are on a bed together, and yet they feel worlds apart. Voiceover: She has none of the erotic sensuality that one normally associates with a female nude. She's very sexual, but she looks very modern. She's not an idealized Venus. She's got makeup on. She's got a 1920s hairdo, and a ribbon around her wrist. She very much looks of the city, but then she's got this terrible scar on her face, and the way that the male figure in front, who looks directly at us, as you said, and looks kind of menacing, one wonders what kind of harm he's inflicted on this female figure behind him. Voiceover: Or perhaps metaphorically, what kind of harm he inflicts through his painting, perhaps in his life more directly. Now, let's just replace these figures. They're both on a bed, very, very close to the foreground. They're really immediate to us. But then, we see a very, very thin veil behind these figures. Voiceover: Separating them from the city. Voiceover: Right, [unintelligible] the city. We can just see the last traces of light fade away. Voiceover: He's wearing a shirt that's very much like a veil, that's almost completely transparent. Voiceover: Yeah, that's a pretty wild outfit for him to be wearing. Notice that the shirt continues down past the roll of his waist, down to his hips. Voiceover: And casts a greenish tonality on his flesh. Voiceover: For all the sexuality here, there's really no passion. Voiceover: There's no warmth at all. Something in this painting that speaks to a kind of ugliness, and difficulty, and harshness of sexuality of the body, of ... and a harshness human relations. Voiceover: It's interesting to put this, then, in historical context. Germany had been a fairly agrarian society for a long time. In the years that preceded this, in the several decades that preceded this, had caught up to much of the West in terms of industrialization, in terms of the city becoming central to German life, and the sexuality and the freedom that comes with- Voiceover: The sexual freedom of the city. With the anonymity of the city. You have an artist that seems to be directly dealling with that new reality. Voiceover: As many German artists had before him. When we think about Kirchner's street scenes. Voiceover: Absolutely, but whereas Kirchner was dealing with Voiceover: Kind of distortion. Voiceover: Or a kind of Dadaist distortion. Here, you have a return to a focused, clarified, intense rendering, where you can't even hide behind abstratction. It's absolutely there. Voiceover: That's exactly, I think, what these artists were looking for, the [unintelligible] artist, this new objectivity, new realism rejecting the distortions used by expressionist artists before them who used those kinds of distortions to represent emotional states. Here saying, "No, we're not going to do that. "We're going to represent this cold reality." (lively piano music)